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`herbs & spices, the cook's reference' is the latest of eight different books on either herbs or spices by noted culinary editor and author, Jill Norman, one of the more influential disciples of the great English culinary writer, Elizabeth David, who contributed two books of her own to this subject.
I chose this book to review since I had a backlog of herb and spice books to review, and I wanted to start with one I could assume to be a standard against which all other books can be measured. The problem with starting with the standard is I'm assuming this role purely on the basis of the author's reputation in the field. I am happy to say that I find virtually nothing in this book to invalidate my holding it up as a standard against which other books on the subject may be judged.
For starters, Ms. Norman convinces us at the outset that the difference between an herb and a spice is vague enough around the world to require that we treat the two together, thereby eliminating any chance of leaving something out because it was not thought to be a spice or an herb. Part of this ambiguity is her statement that in the United States, a dried herb is considered a spice. Since Ms. Norman is an expert on the subject, I must assume that there is a faction in America that believes this. She states this to make it clear that her basis for distinguishing herbs from spices is based on the current British thinking on the subject. But, since she is covering both, the issue is academic in this book.
Much more interesting is Ms. Norman's separation of the various herbs and spices into a large number of categories based on flavor. Herbs are divided into `Fresh and mild herbs' featuring parsley, `Sweet Herbs' featuring lavender, `Citrus or tart herbs' featuring lemon balm, `Licorice or anise herbs' featuring dill and fennel, `Minty herbs' featuring mint, `Onion herbs' featuring garlic, `Bitter or astringent herbs' featuring celery, `Pungent and spicy herbs' featuring sage, thyme, and cilantro. This division alone is a great service, as it gives us a sound basis for substituting one herb for the other, as when we may need borage, and see that it's in the same class as parsley.
A deeper look at this lineup of herbs shows that Ms. Norman is covering a far broader range of species and varieties within species than most other books or sections of books on herbs. Most of us know of two or three varieties of basil. Ms. Norman shows us fourteen, divided between three groups, Genoese and purple basil (Ocimum basilicum), `other basils', and Asian basils. The inclusion of the scientific name is essential in a work like this. The most important need is when you wish to buy seeds to grow these plants, the scientific name is the only way you have to guarantee getting the species or variety you want. If you happen to see seeds for `Asian Basil', know that this could be any one of seven different species or varieties! Within sections such as those for the Asian basils, the pictures in this book really shine, as the pictures of these seven varieties are all on the same page, including stems and flowers in many cases, as many of the leaves from two different varieties are almost identical in appearance.
We are especially happy that Ms. Norman has drawn outside the lines in her including several plant species which border on what we think as teas (such as sassafras), salad greens (such as sorrel and celery), or root vegetable (such as horseradish and wasabi). The only lapse I can find in all the material on herbs is that the distinction between the Mediterranean bay is not clearly made from the New World plants often called `bay'.
Spices get an equally thorough treatment, being divided between `Nutty spices' such as sesame, `Sweet spices' such as vanilla, `Acidic and fruity spices' such as tamarind, `Citrus spices' such as lemon grass, `Licorice or anise spices' such as anise, `Warm and earthy spices such as saffron, `Bitter or astringent spices such as capers, `Pungent spices' such as chiles, ginger, mustard, and pepper. One of my fondest discoveries in this book is that not only are ginger and galangal shown to belong to two different biological genus, they are categorized as in two different taste classes. These two are commonly mistakenly lumped together.
The sections on chilis (genus capsicum) are as vividly colorful as all the others, with a surprise in that the heat in a chili species is rated on a scale of 1 to 10 rather than the better known (in the U.S. at least) Scoville scale.
The chapter in this book which makes it the only book you should need on herbs and spices is the one on recipes, featuring combinations for all the world famous herb and spice mixes, and lots you may never have heard of. The very best aspect of this section is that it provides not one recipe for things such as bouquet garni, but seven, for beef, pork, lamb, poultry, game, fish, and vegetables.
The very last chapter on general recipes could have easily been left out, as what comes before is more than enough to justify this as the only book you will need on herb and spice usage. One thing some readers may miss and the one thing that may justify a second book in you library dedicated to herbs and spices is one that deals with the history and geography of herb and spice origins. This book will not satisfy your curiosity over how New World Tomatoes joined up with their soul mates, Mediterranean basil.
An excellent book and a `must have' for a foodie library.